Steve Voce, 1933-2023

    The long-serving and popular Jazz Journal columnist and reviewer Steve Voce died in Liverpool this week, aged 89

    L-R: Steve Voce, Ruby Braff and Max Jones at Manchester Sports Guild, 1965. Photo by BSL Gray

    Steve Voce, long-serving contributor to Jazz Journal, died 23 November, aged 89, his wife Jenny reports. He had been popular (and often reviled) for his columns variously titled What’d I Say, It Don’t Mean a Thing, Scratching The Surface and Still Clinging To the Wreckage.

    Steve had written for JJ since the 1950s, his lively, witty and often acerbic style much appreciated by many JJ readers. Many must have turned first to his column. He began in an era when factionalism and stylistic and professional rivalry were an intrinsic part of the scene and writers were generally less charitable than today towards jazz they didn’t like. Sadly, that individualism has pretty much disappeared in the last three or four decades as the “jazz industry” has been exhorted to pull together and be positive as if it were a homogenous mass, and as the jazz media has come to depend so much on keeping advertisers and political factions happy.

    Background on Steve’s life is as short in supply as his tolerance for pretension in jazz. When I asked him for a biography for our contributors page, I got simply “In the first half of his life Steve Voce was preoccupied with listening to jazz, boozing and adultery. In the second half of his life he gave up adultery.” There was a lot more to the life and work for jazz than that. It probably isn’t excessive to suggest he lived for the music. Thinking of retrieving an unreviewed record set, Jenny speaks of “masses of paperwork and all sorts of things in most of the house” (the scene may be familiar to jazz spouses) and his passion for jazz, positive or negative, was always palpable. At the Nice festival in the 1980s, when I was getting excited about David Sanborn and about Miles Davis’s band with Stern et al, he made a point of telling me that the difference between what he liked and what I liked is that what he liked would last.

    He wasn’t entirely reactionary, writing favourably in the 1960s and 1970s on experimental developments, especially in British jazz from such as Mike Gibbs. But in later years he reverted to what were probably his first loves in the swing to 1950s mainstream, asking me on various occasions “We lived through the best of it, didn’t we?” (I hadn’t, being of a later generation, but age and long service on both our parts blurred the generational boundaries.)

    This is a short news item, and I hope to extend it into a fuller biography for Steve. Anyone with information on his life and work or recollections of him is welcome to write to editor[at] All Steve’s writings for the Jazz Journal website (i.e., since January 2019) can be seen here.

    Bob Lamb of Chester added, 8 December 2023:

    Steve Voce was very much part of the Liverpool jazz scene in the early 1950s and was associated with the then newly formed Merseysippi Jazz Band (MJB) and its founding member, bassist Dick Goodwin. The band had a regular Monday evening gig at a Liverpool pub, with intervals being filled with a talk by Steve on some aspect or influence of a jazz recording, which he then played.

    One night he appeared with a box full of MJB LPs which he had found in a second-hand goods shop in Manchester . He offered these for sale to the audience for a nominal sum of money which is how I come to possess early recordings by the band. His talks were not confined to traditional jazz but explored jazz in its broader context.

    As recently as last year he visited Parr Jazz in Liverpool to meet up with the late Tony Davis, long-time friend and founder of local folk and skiffle group The Spinners, who was recovering from an accident.

    Although Steve moved on from traditional jazz he never left it and would acknowledge the debt all jazz lovers owe it. Thank you, Steve, it has been a worthwhile pleasure to read your many writings, which will stay with the memory. Oh! …and thanks for those early MJB albums.

    Harry Smith added, 8 December 2023:

    I used to go to his WEA [Workers’ Educational Association] jazz classes in Liverpool in the 1970s. Sometimes he would concentrate on one artist, Ellington or Basie perhaps, but usually he simply played records he liked, chatted about them, and then we commented on them. He rarely played anything before 1930, and wasn’t too keen on free jazz, but apart from that he liked mainstream to modern, his favourites being Bill Harris, Buck Clayton, Ellington, West Coast, Paul Desmond et al. He also kept up with contemporary British jazz. About 9 o’clock we would retire to the Roscoe Head pub and sit in back room drinking pints of bitter and listening to his inexhaustible supply of anecdotes. He was fond of beer and once told me he couldn’t relax properly until he’d drunk four pints. I believe he later switched to red wine on his doctor’s advice. He had a boxer’s physique and never seemed to be affected no matter how much he put away.

    I think his father had a company of some sort, possibly something to do with engineering. It was taken over by a bigger firm but Steve continued to work for them. He used to commute to Manchester from his Crosby home hear Liverpool.

    He was a great friend of Humph. They used to stay up late listening to jazz whenever Humph was up north. His favourite author was Evelyn Waugh and he had a few letters from him after he wrote him a fan letter.

    Most of his jazz stories made it into his JJ column. One of the best concerned Paul Desmond. Steve was seeing him off at Lime St Station after a concert when a group of teenage girls approached him. One of them spotted his sax case and asked him if he was a caveman. It turned out the the girls had been at a gig featuring Tommy Steele and the Cavemen.

    Steve helped a lot of folk to appreciate jazz and have a lot of laughs along the way. We will miss him.

    Rob Duffy added, 29 January 2024:

    I was listening to “Jazz Record Requests” by chance today (I usually listen to football on Sundays!) and heard that Steve Voce had died. (This by way of a request put in by one of his fans).

    My dad, Bob Duffy, played with Humphrey Lyttelton in a concert compered by Steve Voce at a less than clement Liverpool Garden Festival site, in late May 1984. Dad was on the double bass, and at that time was a part-time lecturer at nearby Mabel Fletcher College, having retired from his professional playing life in 1983.

    I remember Steve saying dad sounded like Gene Ramey. This was a blank for me, being mainly a classical music lover and dad didn’t comment. Still, I remember trawling through Birmingham’s record shops (my home from 1981-86) for a Gene Ramey album and eventually came across Buck Clayton’s Passport To Paradise. I presented the album to dad for Christmas and there was still no comment. (My dad was a Stan Kenton fan and really only loved radio broadcasts – including Steve’s – and his reel-to-reel tape recorders.)

    Only last November I paid a Bristol bass-guitar player – who runs a reel-to-reel tape to CD conversion  business – to convert the tape of this concert to two CDs.

    I would also like to pay a tribute to Jenny Voce, who befriended my mum as part of the Musician’s Union Benevolent Scheme when my dad died in 2003. It was always a pleasure to see her. I believe the Voces lived in Crosby, several miles from our home, and thus her efforts were much appreciated.

    Rob Duffy gives some background on his father, Bob:

    “He played from 1940 to 1990. He variously played with dance bands in the 1940s (George Elric, Billy Ternent and latterly, in Liverpool, with Bill Gregson, in Reece’s Ballroom). He moved to London, in 1950, to be part of the Ray Ellington Quartet, which featured in a well-known BBC radio comedy series. He stayed till 1956 but then heard the call of ‘Granadaland’ and joined the Derek Hilton Trio for several years, featuring on People And Places. The only extant tape recording I have from this period is with Jimmy Rushing, possibly Dave Brubeck (not verifiable). All live TV broadcasts and, sadly, wiped. In 1965, he joined the BBC Northern Dance Orchestra (’cos he wanted a pension!) based in Manchester and served with them until 1974 when the band (a longstanding BBC target) was revamped as the Northern Radio Orchestra, prompting dad to take up bass guitar. Dad left the band in 1980 but got call ups to rejoin for The Good Old Days sessions (!!) He retired from college tutoring in 1986 and he kept on gigging in clubs until 1990 and that’s the last I’ve got of him on tape. Like a good jazz man, he loved the trio of piano, drums, bass.”

    Eddie Little (Secretary, Manchester Jazz Society) added 18 February 2024:

    Like your earlier correspondent Harry Smith, I was a member of Steve Voce’s Jazz Appreciation classes in Liverpool in the 1970s for many years. As Harry recalled, Steve’s classes were always entertaining and informative, as were our subsequent sessions in the Roscoe Head pub. On one occasion Steve brought along Buck Clayton. Buck was very modest and to my astonishment he apologised profusely to me when his hat fell into my lap due to our cramped drinking conditions.

    As JJ readers will know, Steve’s columns pulled no punches in his frequent confrontations with those with whom he disagreed. Certainly he was adversarial but also kind and generous. I was an impecunious student in the 1970s and Steve kindly gave me a weekly lift to his classes. On one occasion when he found out that I could not afford to attend a Gil Evans concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, he immediately pulled his car off the road and gave me a Gil Evans album. When he played in his class some of the Condon Coast To Coast sessions, which at that time were hard to come by, he turned up at my house a few days later with a cassette recording of the whole album.

    His BBC Radio Merseyside programme Jazz Panorama was essential listening. Memorable also were two superb jam sessions that Steve organised at Crosby Civic Hall for BBC Radio Merseyside which brought Humphrey Lyttelton, Joe Temperley and Roy Crimmins with local musicians.

    Years later, now living in Manchester, I had an article published in JJ. Steve sought me out, telephoned his approval and urged me to contribute further. I regret that I have not yet summoned up the courage!

    Steve put a lot of good jazz my way. I owe him a great deal.

    Tony Hewitt added, 18 February 2024:

    Mark – bit weird: I dreamt last night that Steve had died so I looked up Google only to find sadly this was true but it was in November.

    I am one of many who met Steve via the WEA in Liverpool and then retired to the local pub. It was at this time he was producing the JJ index but this had become too much hassle for him so he roped me in to do this work for Sinclair Traill, a job I did for many years even up to you taking over.

    It was through Steve I had many wonderful nights of jazz at the Manchester Sports Guild and got to meet a long list of the top players of the era, ranging from Henry Red Allen through most of the top mainstream players.

    One night after a concert at the Free Trade Hall a large section of the Woody Herman band came in and jammed for hours. As Steve noted, we were lucky to have lived at the right time. Being about the same age as Steve I also had that privilege.

    Another memory which stands out was going back stage at the Free Trade Hall and meeting some of the Basie band and also standing on the stage next to Duke Ellington when the hall had emptied after a concert while he played the piano to about six of us.

    One last one, as I could go on longer – Sinclair used to have a Christmas party for JJ staff and I got invited with Steve to go. It was held in Ronnie Scott’s. I got to play with, amongst others, Buddy Tate.

    Times never to be forgotten.

    Digby Fairweather pays a longer, personal tribute to his friend here.